Reflections On Vatican II and LGBT Issues–Part 1: Dialogue

2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II.  As we’ve noted before, the Second Vatican Council was instrumental in laying the groundwork that allowed a discussion of LGBT issues in the church to develop.

Earlier this year, theologian Richard Gaillardetz wrote an insightful essay in America magazine marking this important anniversary.  Gaillardetz identified three crucial dynamics at the Council that allowed it to emerge as the transformative experience it was for the church.  In three separate posts, I’d like to examine those three dynamics and reflect on how they apply to LGBT issues in the church today.  (The next two posts will appear here in the coming week.)

dialogueThe first dynamic Gaillardetz idenitifies is “the catholicity of dialogue.”  He observes:

“During the four sessions of the council, bishops were introduced to other prelates from diverse countries and continents, who looked at key pastoral and theological issues from strikingly different perspectives. One of the more felicitous decisions of the council concerned the seating of bishops in the aula (the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica where the main meetings of the council were conducted). The bishops were seated in order according to episcopal seniority rather than by region. This created the circumstances in which an Italian bishop, for example, might sit next to a bishop from Africa.

“This arrangement made possible a fruitful exchange of diverse perspectives and insights. Indeed, some of the most important work of the council was accomplished at the coffee bars (nicknamed after two Gospel characters, Bar-Jonah and Bar-Abbas) kept open behind the bleachers in the aula. Bishops, after struggling to stay awake during one mind-numbing Latin speech after another, found respite at these coffee bars and often engaged in frank conversation about a variety of topics. It was the sustained, face-to-face conversation and sharing of diverse experiences that opened episcopal eyes to new possibilities. These conversations were further facilitated by informal gatherings of bishops like the 22 bishops who met regularly at the Domus Mariae hotel and were committed to encouraging a more wide-ranging deliberation than was possible within the aula. These bishops met weekly to discuss topics being considered by the council. . . .

“It was the many opportunities for discussion and debate, both formal and informal, that allowed the bishops to discern the impulse of the Spirit.”

What a remarkable opportunity for the church!  Bishops actually had the opportunity to dialogue with one another, to share perspectives and test their ideas against what others think.

From so many hierarchical statements today on LGBT issues, one gets the idea that the bishops are not talking even with one another.  Instead, they seem to be listening to and repeating only statements that come from the Vatican.  Our church is clearly the poorer for this situation.

Bishops–and our entire church–need more opportunities like Vatican II to dialogue, particularly in the area of LGBT issues.  LGBT topics are a relatively new topic for examination and discussion in both society and the world.  It was only after the mid-point of the 20th century that even secular society began to slowly discuss these topics.  Clearly, LGBT topics are among those that needed the fresh air that Pope John XXIII discussed when he announced the Council as an opportunity to open the windows of the church.

Several bishops have told me personally that these days bishops rarely discuss ideas with one another in informal settings.  They, sadly, have few opportunities to test out ideas and theories with one another in free and open situations.  Only staleness could thrive in such a context.

For LGBT issues, and for all issues related to sexuality, bishops need to dialogue with more than one another.  Since all bishops are vowed celibates,  if they only speak with one another, they will only hear part of the necessary conversation. They need to hear the lived faith experiences of people involved in public and loving sexual relationships.

While it may take a long time to end the culture of silence and non-discussion that infects our current hierarchy,  we can foster that spirit of dialogue by starting conversations on LGBT issues on the grassroots level.  Start programs of dialogue and education on LGBT issues  in your parish or faith community if you can.  If you are unable to do that,  then raise LGBT issues whenever possible:  in social justice committee meetings, education  committee meetings, pastoral outreach meetings, evangelization meetings–wherever there is an opportunity to do so.

I know that in many quarters in the church  there is an unhealthy silence about LGBT issues.  We need to end that silence by addressing these issues whenever and wherever we can in ways that will not alienate those we are trying to engage in dialogue.    If we begin the dialogue in small ways in our home communities, then the larger dialogue that is needed in our church, and that Vatican II modeled for us, can become a reality.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

9 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    “We need to end that silence by addressing these issues whenever and wherever we can”.

    Agreed, wholeheartedly. The challenge is, when and where can we do so? The church claims to be a “listening church”, but provides no forums in which to do so. In fact, wherever we are, there are numerous ways in which we can create our own forums. If we are fortunately located, we can participate in conferences, workshops, and retreats such as those provided by New Ways, Dignity or CALGM, But not everybody is so conveniently located, and besides, in these groups we are simply preaching to the choir. We need to find and utilize other channels, too.

    There’s always the blogosphere, available to everyone. We can contribute directly or comment on others’ writing, at queer-friendly sites, sexually neutral but progressive sites – and even at those more usually hostile.

    But perhaps the most valuable, if initially the most daunting, is in face to face discussions with fellow Catholics in our local parishes. It’s taken me a while, but over the past year or two I have quite deliberately become fully involved in my local parish (in a very conservative part of Surrey, UK), as a reader, joining in discussions over refreshments over Mass, in small group discussions, and in parish social events. At all times, I make no attempt to hide my sexuality, and in group discussions, frequently present a view which is explicitly from a queer perspective. Far from finding this experience difficult or threatening, I have found that most people have been actively supportive, encouraging and inviting me to say more.

    This will not be everyone’s experience: parishes do differ, and one must proceed with caution. However, I am convinced that in most cases, people will find that coming out in their local faith communities is easier than they may fear – and brings with it the same kind of liberating sense that usually accompanies coming out in our secular daily lives.

    • newwaysministryblog
      newwaysministryblog says:


      You provide some excellent examples of how to start a dialogue. I agree with you that it is not easy to do so, especially in some quarters in the church. I am convinced that even dialogue on low levels will influence the dialogue in higher levels in the church. The fact that our local dialogues may not be the ones we would eventually hope to be having should not prevent us from having them anyway. All change starts from the bottom and moves up. If we don’t start making changes at the bottom, there will never be opportunities for the change to move up. Thank you for sharing your own testimony of how you have started the dialogue in your communities. Much good will happen because of what you do.

  2. Patrick Nugent
    Patrick Nugent says:

    We are blessed with a progressive pastor and so are comfortable raising GLBT issues in different fora in our parish. I chair our social justice committee and frequently forward “Bondings” postings to our members. My wife and I will originate an “Always our Children” group (support group for families and friends of GLBT people) on a small regional basis after the first of the year. We will consider a couple of “gay friendly” initiatives in our social justice committee, such as refusing to take up the annual collection for Catholic University until the university adopts appropriate policies. We will also consider a letter from our committee to our bishop asking that he refute the vicious commentary coming from the Vatican about GLBT people. Where all this might go is, or course, uncertain, but it is at least trying to raise the level of awareness locally.


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  1. […] part in a three-part series reflecting on Vatican II and LGBT issues.  For the first part, click here; for the second part, click […]

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